When he flew off to San Clemente, Calif., in the summer of 1969 for his August vacation, Richard Nixon was riding a wave of popularity.
He had announced the first troop withdrawal from Vietnam. He had met the Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on touchdown in the Pacific. He had become the first president to visit a captive nation with a triumphal tour of Bucharest. And he had just proposed a sweeping reform of welfare praised by both parties.
But when Nixon returned in September, a storm had broken. Wrote David Broder: "It is becoming more obvious with each passing day that the men and the movement that broke Lyndon Johnson’s authority in 1968 are out to break Richard Nixon in 1969.
"The likelihood is great that they will succeed again."
They did not succeed in breaking Nixon’s presidency. He broke them. The crucial moment was his "Great Silent Majority" speech of Nov. 3, 1969, which rallied Middle America behind his war policy.
George W. Bush is approaching a similar moment of truth. And Cindy Sheehan may be the catalyst of crisis for the Bush presidency.
As a Gold Star mother of a soldier son slain in Iraq, Sheehan has authenticity and moral authority. Wedded to the passion of her protest, these make her a magnet for a bored White House press corps camped in Crawford for August. Cindy and the president are the only stories in town. And as a source of daily derogatory commentary on the president, Sheehan is using the media, and the media are using her, for the same end: to bedevil George W. Bush.
They are succeeding. When one considers the non-stop cable TV coverage given the mother of Natalie Holloway, the Alabama teen missing in Aruba, Cindy Sheehan will soon be a household name. The more media she attracts, the more people she draws to Crawford. The more people who join Cindy in Crawford, the more media coverage they will attract. It is hard to see what breaks this cycle before Labor Day and the president’s return.
The purity of Sheehan’s protest has lately been diluted by her association with the far Left, the extravagance of her language and the arrival of political operatives to manipulate and manage her. But in a slow news month, Cindy Sheehan has helped turn the focus of national debate back to the war, at a moment of special vulnerability for the president.
According to Newsweek, support for Bush’s handling of the war has fallen for the first time below 40 percent — to 34 percent, with 61 percent now disapproving of his war leadership. Compare these numbers to the 68 percent support Nixon commanded on Vietnam after that November 3 address, and the gravity of Bush’s condition becomes evident.
Put bluntly, the bottom is falling out of support for the commander in chief. What is remarkable is that no Democrat has stepped forward, as Gene McCarthy did, to lead an antiwar crusade and call for a date certain for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Cindy Sheehan is filling that vacuum.
As the White House seems to be losing control of the debate, our war leaders no longer seem to be singing from the same song sheet. When the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Casey spoke of "substantial" withdrawals of U.S. forces by spring, with Rumsfeld beside him, he was contradicted by Bush who dismissed this as "speculation" and reportedly rebuked.
To most Americans, it seems apparent that the United States and its allies do not have the boots on the ground to grind down and defeat this Sunni-jihadist insurgency. Yet, no one is talking about sending more U.S. combat brigades. How, then, do you win the war?
"As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down" is President Bush’s exit strategy. But how can the Iraqis the U.S. Army is training defeat an enemy the U.S. Army has itself been unable to defeat in two years?
Americans do not want an endless no-win war, but they also do not want to cut and run, or walk away and leave a debacle, when they believe that 1,850 Americans have died and 13,000 have been wounded in a noble cause. If President Bush cannot describe "victory" in terms convincing enough to Americans willing to spend blood indefinitely, he will have to persuade them to stay the course by describing what a disaster defeat will mean for Iraq and for the America’s position in the world.
But to do that would raise a question: Why, then, in heaven’s name, did America take such a risk, when Iraq was never a threat?
September could see the coalescing of an antiwar movement that both bedevils the White House and divides a Democratic Party that seeks to benefit from a losing war, without having to offer a plan to win it or end it, without being held accountable for having supported it, or responsible for undercutting it.
Our politics appear likely to become even more poisoned when the president returns from his troubled vacation.